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Bass Lake (Madera County, California)

Coordinates: 37°17′27″N 119°31′30″W / 37.29077°N 119.52513°W / 37.29077; -119.52513
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Bass Lake
Location of Bass Lake in California, USA.
Location of Bass Lake in California, USA.
Bass Lake
Location of Bass Lake in California, USA.
Location of Bass Lake in California, USA.
Bass Lake
LocationSierra National Forest
Madera County, California
Coordinates37°17′27″N 119°31′30″W / 37.29077°N 119.52513°W / 37.29077; -119.52513
Primary inflowsWillow Creek Browns Creek Ditch
Primary outflowsWillow Creek
Basin countriesUnited States
Max. length6.7 km (4.2 mi)
Max. width0.64 km (0.40 mi)
Surface area472 ha (1,170 acres)
Max. depth30 m (98 ft)
Water volume56,100 dam3 (45,500 acre⋅ft)
Surface elevation1,027 m (3,369 ft)
SettlementsBass Lake, California

Bass Lake, situated in Madera County, California, within the Sierra National Forest and approximately 14 mi (23 km) south of Yosemite National Park, is a popular recreational area. The lake, formed by the Crane Valley Dam on Willow Creek, a tributary to the San Joaquin River, spans about four miles (6.4 km) in length and one-half mile (0.80 km) in width.[3][4] Constructed in 1910 (114 years ago) (1910) by Pacific Gas and Electric, the 145 ft (44 m) concrete gravity dam generates hydro-electric power through controlled releases.[5] The lake supports a diverse ecosystem, including species such as black bears, mule deer, bald eagles, and Great blue herons, along with a variety of fish species.

Historically, the Mono Native Americans inhabited Bass Lake until the California Gold Rush. It later became significant to the logging industry. The town of Wishon, established on the lake's southern shore, served as a central point for the Sugar Pine Lumber Company.

On the lake's south shore, the U.S. Forest Service has developed campgrounds and picnic areas, while the north shore features private cabins and homes. The unincorporated community of Bass Lake, California, maintains a year-round population of 575 residents.[6]

Bass Lake serves as a hub for outdoor enthusiasts, offering opportunities for fishing, swimming, water skiing, hiking, and mountain biking. Additionally, it serves as a launch point for excursions into Yosemite National Park and hosts an annual Independence Day fireworks display.

Over the years, Bass Lake has been a backdrop for various Hollywood films, including Carnival Boat (1931), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), and The Great Outdoors (1987). In the past, Bass Lake was an annual gathering place for the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, a tradition that dwindled by the late 1980s. It has experienced environmental challenges such as beetle infestations, droughts, and wildfires, which have substantially affected its local pine forests.



Bass Lake is located on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada at an elevation of 3,370 feet (1,030 m).[7]

Bass Lake reservoir was created by the Crane Valley Dam, which impounds North Fork Willow Creek. It’s also fed by South Fork Willow Creek through the Brown’s Ditch diversion, as well as Slide, Pines, and Salter Creeks. Willow Creek is the lake’s only outlet which flows south through the community of North Fork before its confluence with the San Joaquin River.

The lake is bound by Malum Ridge on the south and by Graham Mountain[8] which rises dramatically to an elevation of 6,090 feet (1,860 m) in the northeast. Goat Mountain,[9] which frames the lake on the west, is named after the goats that helped compact the soil of the original earthwork dam who grazed there.[10]

A panorama of Bass Lake, framed by Goat Mountain, viewed from Glass Rock.



In Bass Lake, California, the demographics and economic characteristics present a distinct contrast to the broader state, as per the 2022 United States Census Bureau data. The median age in the census district is significantly higher at 64.5 years, compared to California's median of 37.9 years. A notable 43.7% of Bass Lake's population is aged 65 or older, significantly more than the state's 15.8%.[11]

Economically, the median household income in Bass Lake is $145,083, surpassing the state median of $91,551. However, the area faces a higher poverty rate, with 20.4% of the population living in poverty, compared to 12.2% in the state.[11]

The workforce in Bass Lake is predominantly employed in government sectors, with 39.6% working in local, state, or federal government, a figure much higher than the state's 14.2%. Housing in the area totals 868 units, and the population primarily identifies as White, non-Hispanic or Latino (466 individuals), with significant Hispanic or Latino (68) and multiracial (65) communities. The total White population is 481.[11]

In terms of education, Bass Lake exceeds the state average, with 59.9% of its residents holding a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 37.0% in California.[11]



Bass Lake is characterized by a Mediterranean climate (Koppen CSA) featuring hot, dry summers and cool, rainy winters, which may occasionally witness heavy snowstorms. The area's hardiness zone is classified as 8b.[12]

Mono Winds


Mono Winds are a local weather phenomenon characterized by strong foehn winds. These winds materialize when high-pressure systems in the Great Basin propel air upward and over the Sierra, causing it to intensify as the rugged terrain funnels the air. This funneling effect can amplify wind speeds to 50 mph, with gusts exceeding 80 mph in specific narrow areas.[13]

Typically, Mono Winds occur between October and April, with the highest frequency observed in December and January.[14] On average, one or two episodes transpire each year, although some years may experience none at all. Although these strong winds may only persist for a few hours, they have the potential to inflict substantial damage. For example, in January 2021, Mono Winds caused significant damage to homes and power lines in the Bass Lake area, leading to hundreds of felled trees, road closures and a prolonged power outage.[15]



Native animal species in the area include black bear (Ursus americanus), mule deer, bald eagles,[16] and blue herons (Ardea herodias). Interestingly, the region earned its name "Crane Valley" due to a mistaken identification of the resident Great blue herons as cranes by the original settlers.[17] Encounters with American black bears are frequent.[18]

Bass Lake is a thriving habitat for a diverse range of fish species, including bass, which were introduced to California in the 19th century. Due to pollution resulting from dam construction, which eliminated the previous fish species, the lake was subsequently stocked with bass, leading to the lake's naming.[19] With over 16 fish species, including trout, bass, kokanee salmon, catfish, crappie, and bluegill, the lake attracts anglers year-round, making it a popular fishing destination.[20][21]

Fishing trends at Bass Lake are influenced by seasonal changes. During the less crowded fall and spring months, local anglers primarily target black bass. Winter provides favorable conditions for rainbow trout, which are annually stocked by the Department of Fish and Game. The Bass Lake Fishing Derby is an annual event held in anticipation of the summer months, helping manage the rainbow trout population, which faces survival challenges due to warmer summer waters.[22] Active efforts have been made to remove undesirable non-game fish species from the lake to ensure a balanced and sustainable aquatic ecosystem.[23]

Pine beetle infestation in 1933.
Beetle infestation in 2015.

Bass Lake, like many regions in the western United States, has grappled with significant beetle infestations, notably the mountain pine beetle and the western pine beetle, which have severely damaged the local pine forests.[24]

In addition to beetle infestations, Bass Lake has been affected by drought and numerous record-setting wildfires in the decade from 2011 to 2020. This combination of factors, including fire, drought, and bark beetle infestations linked to the drought, has resulted in a substantial loss of ponderosa pine forest. The Courtney Fire in 2014 was particularly devastating, leading to the loss of most trees within the 80-acre fire perimeter, stretching from Bass Lake Heights to the lake shore.[25]

Human History


Native People


Bass Lake was historically inhabited by the Mono Native Americans until the onset of the California Gold Rush. During this period, many Mono were forcibly displaced from Crane Valley in May 1851, an event precipitated by the Mariposa War, a conflict which aimed to make the Southern Sierra Nevada accessible to white settlers. This forced displacement was executed under Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.[26]

In January 1851, a major battle near Goat Mountain resulted in the death of Mono chief Jose Ray. Originally named Battle Mountain after the altercation, it was renamed Goat Mountain in the early 1900s after goats were introduced there during dam construction.[27]

Despite these disruptions, many Mono continued their traditional way of life in the region until the establishment of the Sierra National Forest in 1897. With the creation of this national forest, permits were required for the use of these federal lands. However, such permits were only available to citizens, a status that Native Americans were denied until the implementation of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924.[28]

Lumber Industry

Hauling logs over Bass Lake Dam in 1926.

In 1854, pioneers Charles P. Converse and Bill Chitiser established the first lumber mill at the base of Willow Creek falls, the first lumber mill in present day Madera County.[29] This marked the beginning of clearing activities in the Crane Valley basin, making way for ranching, farming, and the eventual development of Bass Lake reservoir.

The logging industry experienced a significant boom with the advent of steam power. By the 1920s, the town of Wishon, situated on the western shore of Bass Lake, served as the hub for the Sugar Pine Lumber Company — the last logging company established in the Southern Sierra. A network of railroad tracks connected Bass Lake with the logging epicenter of Central Camp, serviced by the largest saddle-tank locomotive ever built. This massive machine was responsible for hauling log cars up the twelve-mile incline with a 4.5 percent gradient. Despite its impressive operation, the railroad never turned a profit. During its final two years, it operated as a heritage railway, conducting tourist excursions from Pinedale until its closure in 1931.[30]



Bass Lake was formed through the construction of the Crane Valley Reservoir, a project initiated by the San Joaquin Electric Company in 1901.[31] The reservoir was built to generate hydroelectric power for the inhabitants of the San Joaquin Valley.

The dam has undergone several expansions over the years. Initially, it was enlarged in 1905, and then again in 1910, reaching a height of 145 feet (44 m). In 2012, a significant seismic retrofitting project fortified the structure with 300,000 cubic yards (230,000 m3) of rock and further elevated the dam crest by an additional 8 feet (2.4 m) feet.[32]

In years of regular rainfall and seasonal snowpack, the lake fills to its maximum capacity. Water is then gradually released over the summer and autumn months to meet the demand for irrigation and hydroelectric power. By December, the lake's water levels can be reduced to about 35% of total capacity, or 36 feet (11 m) below crest elevation, in preparation for seasonal weather and runoff.[33] Bass Lake is not designed for multi-year water storage.[34][35]

In November 2020, PG&E declared its intentions to sell the Crane Valley Hydroelectric Project, which includes both the Bass Lake reservoir and the surrounding property owned by PG&E.[36]



Most of the land around the lake is part of the Sierra National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service designated the lake an official Recreation Area and has developed campgrounds and picnic areas on the south shore of the lake.

Most private homes in Bass Lake are located within the Pines Tract on the lake's north shore. Developed in the 1930s, these cabins were primarily secondary homes and remained modest due to the sub-lease arrangement with PG&E. In 1992, after extended negotiations, PG&E sold 125 acres (51 ha) acres of the land to the Bass Lake Homeowners Association.[37] This sale formalized property ownership, triggering a wave of construction and a significant rise in property values, with some lakefront homes now exceeding $6 million in value.[38][39]

Wishon Airport

Wishon Airport

In June 1937, the Wishon Field airfield was opened at Bass Lake. It was a limited airfield, featuring a one-way 2,200' unpaved runway.[40] Initially, it was primarily intended for use by the Forest Service.[41] But it became a destination for private aviators who would fly to enjoy the lake and eat at the resorts.[42]

The airstrip posed significant challenges for takeoffs and landings. During the 1960s, the FAA declined to acknowledge the Wishon Airport, citing its failure to meet minimum safety standards and its inability to be repositioned or modified to meet those standards. The agency emphasized that any approach to the airport had to be executed over the lake, and once a pilot initiated their descent, they were committed to completing the landing.[43]

The airport's last flights were in the 1980s. Since then, the land has been turned into a housing development.


The Pines Resort

The community is anchored by several historically significant mountain resorts. On the north shore, Ducey's Lodge, originally built in 1941, was rebuilt after a fire in 1988.[44] The Pines Resort, also on the north shore, was initially established in 1901 and was rebuilt following a fire in 1962.[45] On the south shore, The Forks Resort opened in 1927.[46] In the same area, Miller’s Landing, was established by John McDougald in 1928.[47]


Wakeboarding before sunset.

Bass Lake supports a vibrant tourism industry.[48] By the 1950s, the lake was already attracting over half a million visitors every year.[49]

The lake's water temperature typically reaches 80 °F (27 °C) during the summer, making it an ideal spot for a host of water activities, including fishing, swimming, water skiing, and boating. In addition, trails in the area attract hikers and mountain bikers.[50][51]

Moreover, Bass Lake is a common starting point for trips into the high Sierra and nearby Yosemite National Park.

Since 1930, Bass Lake has been the host of an aerial fireworks display on Independence Day, with the exception of a hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Known as the largest fireworks show in Madera County, this event attracts an estimated crowd of 60,000 people each year.[52][53][54]

Triathlon, a sport with a rich history at Bass Lake, was the host of the 1983 and 1984 USA Triathlon (USAT) and United States Triathlon Series (USTS) National Championships.[55][56] Known for its scenic, challenging course, it's a top West Coast event. After a hiatus, the Bass Lake Triathlon returned in 2011.



Bass Lake Elementary School, situated at the north end of the lake and operational from 1947 to 2010, provided education to the community for 63 years.[57] The school consistently faced low enrollment, usually below 100 students, and financial difficulties, placing it at frequent risk of closure.[58]

The eventual closure of the school was a result of continuously declining student numbers and rising operational expenses, culminating in a $1.3 million deficit over its final ten years. The school's enrollment dropped to just 44 students, rendering it ineligible for state funding designated for small schools.[59]

Hells Angels


Starting in 1963, Bass Lake became a regular meeting spot for the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, drawing large numbers of members from all over the state every Memorial Day weekend. The 1965 Bass Lake Run was vividly chronicled by acclaimed journalist Hunter S. Thompson in his debut book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.[60]

Local residents often viewed these yearly gatherings with trepidation, linking the influx of motorcyclists with an uptick in crime and a decrease in tourist activity. In response, each year, law enforcement units from Madera County and nearby regions imposed measures such as roadblocks, curfews, and campground restrictions, with the aim of mitigating or managing the activities of the Hells Angels.[61][62]

The Bass Lake Run witnessed its heyday in the 1970s, after which it started to decline. By the late 1980s, the event had effectively disappeared.

In Media


Bass Lake has been the location of several Hollywood film shoots throughout its history.

The adventure film Carnival Boat, produced by RKO Pictures in 1931, was filmed at the Sugar Pine Lumber Company on the eastern side of Bass Lake. The film, starring William Boyd and Ginger Rogers, was lauded for its authentic portrayal of life in lumber camps.[63]

In 1945, Bass Lake was used to film scenes for the psychological thriller and film noir melodrama, Leave Her to Heaven. The movie, produced by 20th Century Fox, utilized Bass Lake to represent a lake in northern Maine.[64]

The Great Outdoors, an American comedy film written and produced by John Hughes, was filmed at Bass Lake in October 1987. The film, starring Dan Aykroyd and John Candy, used Bass Lake as the setting for the fictional Lake Potowotominimac.[65] Ducey's Bass Lake Lodge, a resort dating back to the 1940s, was used as a key location in the film.[66]

See also



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  2. ^ U.S. Geological Survey (2009). "Feature Detail Report: Bass Lake". Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). U.S. Department of the Interior. Retrieved 2009-03-13.
  3. ^ Department of Water Resources Division of Safety of Dams (2009). "Listing of Dams". California Data Exchange Center. State of California. Archived from the original on 2009-04-11. Retrieved 2009-04-01.
  4. ^ "Bass Lake History". BassLakeCA.com. 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-13.
  5. ^ "Bass Lake". Archived from the original on 2010-11-23.
  6. ^ "Population and Housing Unit Estimates". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved January 17, 2022.
  7. ^ "U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Bass Lake, California". United States Geological Survey. January 18, 1981. Retrieved November 22, 2021.
  8. ^ "U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Graham Mountain, California". United States Geological Survey. December 31, 1981. Retrieved November 22, 2021.
  9. ^ "U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Goat Mountain, California". United States Geological Survey. December 31, 1981. Retrieved November 22, 2021.
  10. ^ Freeman, Marcia Penner (2013). Willow Creek History: Tales of Cow Camps, Shake Makers & Basket Weavers. The History Press. p. 108. ISBN 978-1-60949-644-9.
  11. ^ a b c d United States Census Bureau. "Bass Lake CDP, California." Retrieved from [1]
  12. ^ "California Hardiness Zone Map - Bass Lake, California". PlantMaps. December 31, 1981. Retrieved November 22, 2021.
  13. ^ Ruscha, Charles P. Jr. (February 1976). "Forecasting the Mono Wind" (PDF). National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NWS WR-105. Retrieved November 22, 2021.
  14. ^ "Roadside Naturalist: Effects of the Mono Winds". U.S. National Park Service - High Country Notebook. September 8, 2012. Retrieved November 22, 2021.
  15. ^ Rodriguez, Rich (January 19, 2021). "Falling trees cause extensive damage at Bass Lake". KMPH-TV. Fresno, California. Retrieved November 22, 2021.
  16. ^ Estep, John E. (2005-04-22). "Order Approving Bass Lake Bald Eagle and Raptor Management Plan Pursuant to Article 417 and Condition No. 15". Chiefs, Lands Resources Branch, Division of Hydropower Administration and Compliance. Retrieved 2023-06-05.
  17. ^ "Sierra Traveler: A Visitor's Guide to the Sierra National Forest" (PDF). US Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 2023-06-04.
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  27. ^ Fenimons, Frank. "An Ideal Mountain Valley: A Graphic Description of One of the Many Beauty Spots in the Sierra Nevada Range." Fresno Evening Herald, vol. XLVI, no. 92, 16 April 1912. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=FHD19120416.2.185&srpos=11&e=-------en--20--1--txt-txIN-oakhurst+fresno+flats+name+change-------.
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  56. ^ "Bass Lake Yosemite Triathlon Right Around the Corner!". Sierra News Online. 2023-05-27. Retrieved 2023-06-04.
  57. ^ California Department of Education. "California School Directory: Bass Lake Elementary." Retrieved from [2]
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  59. ^ "Bass Lake Elementary closed its doors for good." ABC7, 10 June 2010. Retrieved from [4]
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  65. ^ Gordon, I. Herbert (June 12, 1988). "Bass Lake Lures Recreational Crowd". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 3, 2023.
  66. ^ JOHN McKINNEY (November 12, 1995). "Wandering Around Bass Lake. Hiking: Southern Sierra Nevada".